“We are heartbroken to share that Kay left us unexpectedly this morning,” her family said in a statement, according to The Charlotte Observer.
“Kay meant everything to us, and we were honored to share her with the people of North Carolina whom she cared for and fought for so passionately as an elected official,” the family said. “Most of all, we already miss her humor and spirit as the hub of our family, a role she loved more than anything. Nobody could light up a room and make people feel welcome like Kay.”
Hagan became the second woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 2008 but then lost the seat in 2014 to the state’s then-House Speaker Thom Tillis (R). She had previously worked as a lawyer and a banker.
The former senator was diagnosed with encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, in 2016 and hospitalized for six months. Her condition was later reported to have been caused by Powassan virus, which is spread by ticks from animals to humans.
This past June, Hagan made a rare public appearance for the groundbreaking ceremony of a new air traffic control tower at Piedmont Triad International Airport near her hometown of Greensboro. She was seated in a wheelchair and did not speak publicly, although she exchanged private greetings with some of the attendees.
“Kay’s ability to speak is limited, but her comprehension is very good,” her husband, Chip Hagan, told The News & Record later that day. “She still has a great deal of difficulty in standing and walking.”
Powassan virus is spread to humans by ticks that have fed on groundhogs, squirrels, mice or other rodents carrying the virus in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms can take up to a month to develop and can include fever, headache, vomiting and weakness. Many people have no symptoms.
But those with a more severe form of the virus, the CDC says, can exhibit confusion, loss of coordination, trouble speaking and seizures. Roughly 1 out of 10 people who develop a severe disease from Powassan virus die. And among those who survive, roughly half have long-term health problems including headaches, memory problems and loss of muscle mass and strength, the CDC says.
Although the overall number of reported cases of Powassan virus remains small, it has surged over the last 18 years, according to a 2017 article in Frontiers in Public Health. There were just 27 reported cases from 1958 to 1998, but then 98 cases were reported from 1999 to 2016.
Researchers attribute this increase, at least in part, to a rise in tick populations due to climate change.